Waghorn: 'They kept us out of Gaza and Israeli officials spun the war'

Frustrated in his effort to cover the conflict, Dominic Waghorn says the press controls backfired

Sunday 25 January 2009 01:00 GMT

For three and a half weeks I have covered a war, if we can call it that, from a distance – for much of the time standing on a van. I did so because the Israeli government operated the most draconian press controls in the history of modern warfare during its offensive on Gaza. A strip of land 25 miles long, with one and a half million people living through bombardment and a humanitarian crisis, was closed to journalists.

Gaza is entirely surrounded by a security fence; Israel was able to enforce its ban with ease. It also declared the neighbouring area a closed military zone. Military police repeatedly moved us back from the border; those who flouted the rules were detained. There were only one or two places where we were allowed to film live that had a view of Gaza. We nicknamed one the Hill of Shame, a mound a mile or two outside the northernmost tip of Gaza. On it was camped a circus of news crews more than 100 strong. On weekends, Israeli war tourists – there is no other way to describe them – joined the scene, cheering the large explosions in the distance. I wondered how Israelis would view Palestinians doing the same. And during the week, a constant parade of Israeli experts and officials was on hand to spin the way they wanted us to view the war.

We went to great lengths to get a better view, sneaking into kibbutzes with our satellite dish or hiding in deserted earthworks, but were always found eventually and moved on, ending up on the roadside peering at the conflict from the top of our van. It is hard to convey the frustration of reporting on a conflict in those conditions. You can go on about what you are hearing and seeing, and talk in hackneyed terms of "the rattle of small arms fire", but the viewer wants to know what is happening on the ground and what it is doing to the people at the receiving end.

There were journalists and cameramen already inside Gaza before the offensive began. News agencies and others there employ some of the bravest and most dedicated people in the business. They risked their lives venturing out under threat of Israeli bombardment to film its consequences moments after impact, so the pictures and the story were getting out. With back-up from London and our bureau in Jerusalem, I could stay in touch with developments and convey them with the necessary qualifications.

But what the coverage missed was a strong enough connection. The correspondent's job is to make the story real, so the viewer can relate to it. We all know TV news is at its most powerful when you think, "what if that was me, or my wife, or my child?" At that point you connect emotionally – when you realise what you are watching is happening to real people.

There were military reasons for some restrictions. Israeli censors ordered Sky News not to run the first pictures of the troops going in, for instance, after we picked them out with our night-vision lens. Live footage would have exposed them to enemy fire, we were told.

Other conflicts are censored too but the excuses given for keeping us out of Gaza don't stand up to scrutiny. Journalists and the Israeli terminal crossing staff have been in danger from mortar fire for years now, but our joint safety only became an excuse to close the border in the run-up to this offensive. Besides, when the crossings were open for humanitarian reasons, we still weren't allowed in.

The media control seems to have been a calculation made at the highest level in the Israeli government. We would do more harm reporting what was going on in Gaza than we would left outside complaining about restrictions on our press freedom.

I am not sure it worked. There was enormous criticism of the campaign outside Israel, despite the draconian press controls. The news agency pictures and stories gave an account of the fighting and its consequences, however incomplete. And Israel's attitude has become a story. The country has been compared to the likes of China, Zimbabwe and Burma in the way it blocked efforts to report the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Privately, our military minders shared their frustrations with their government's control of the media. They had their own reasons: they wanted us to see at first hand what their soldiers were experiencing. But they also knew it made the world wonder what Israel was trying to hide. Now we have been allowed into Gaza, we are feeding a pent-up demand for information, and the stories of alleged war crimes and atrocities are reinforcing the allegations of a cover- up.

When the Israelis review their policy in the long term, they may well conclude it was an own goal. The accusation they most frequently level at foreign journalists is that we distort the truth to give a biased view. Well for three weeks they have manipulated the way the world has viewed an event of enormous significance. What staggering hypocrisy.

The author is the Middle East correspondent for Sky News

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